First, One Must Endure

November 2nd, 2011
First, One Must Endure: the Hemingway typeface & its design processFirst, One Must Endure: the Hemingway typeface & its design process

This presentation was designed for a lecture at Northern Illinois University School of Art in 2011, about my Hemingway typeface and its design process, and about my type design philosophy at large.

“Hemingway Pro” is the result of a personal project or I should say journey started in September 2002 after a vacation in the town of Otranto, Southern Italy. It was the time when I had to come up with a substantial idea for my master thesis at Polytechnic of Milan. I had ‘that’ book on the shelf calling me to be read, and I tossed it the bag for the trip. It was the prize winning novel The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Miller Hemingway. One afternoon, after a walk, sitting by a dock in the gulf of Otranto, I happened to lay my eyes on a hand-drawn upper case ‘B’ painted inside the stern of a little fisherman’s boat. It was just beautiful: a sharp ‘B’ with the right part of the letter having the shape of two sails in full wind, the stem being the mast. After that view, I knew I had to start reading the book by Hemingway, and the time proved to be right. I found the structure of the novel suitable for a semantic translation into the high-contrast world of black and white letterforms and words. In his discussion of the prose style of The Old Man and the Sea in “Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Old Man and the Sea,” Malcolm Cowley notes that Hemingway “uses the oldest and shortest words, the simplest constructions, but gives them a new value.”

I wanted my typeface to relate to the content, to the story, to carry the meaning of sharpness and harshness, and at the same time to show a stiff and a soft quality – the same qualities in which the nature of the sea is apparently revealed in Hemingway’s novel, a book that indeed speaks about the fairness of nature. During the process of embedding a sailboat symbol into the uppercase letters, I pursued a philosophical method held dear by the writer; the theory of omitting as much as possible from his stories and relying on the sensibility of the reader, who is trusted to imagine that which was omitted. As Robert Bringhurst writes in his The Elements of Typographic Style: “We could say that a large part of typography is far removed from literature, but typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition.” I found the possibility of compressing the prose fascinating, I saw in my drawings that I could achieve the intensity I was looking for.

In a 1958 interview in “The Paris Review,” Hemingway described this style of writing in the following terms: «I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story». I intended to use this idea as if it was an idiosyncratic relation between the uppercase and lowercase letters, and within those having large counters. Contrary perhaps to normal practice, I started to draw first all the uppercase letters, using a calligraphic broad nibbed automatic-pen, on a grid I had planned to be closely related to the proportions of the Roman Capital letter. The orientation of the sail symbols I was trying to embed in my sketches was meant to compatible with the western reading model, as if the reading direction was the wind itself. Consequently, I developed the lowercase letters and the numbers. The influences on the lowercase were mostly Neville Brody’s Industria Solid, for its rigid and industrial sharpness, and Michael Gills’ Charlotte Sans, a humanistic sans serif which I found very legible among the unseriffed typefaces I knew at the time.

By the time I presented the thesis at the Polytechnic of Milan in July 2004, assisted by Prof. Giangiorgio Fuga, I had developed a basic yet complete set, with italics and relative kerning. In August 2004 I received a letter from Prof. Hermann Zapf to whom I had sent a copy of my thesis book. Zapf wrote back: “My personal feeling for your typeface design called ‘Hemingway’ would be that the characters are too smooth for a personality so powerful and rough as Hemingway was in all his life. Also much too elegant for him. As a specialist in bookfaces I think within a text of type your type is too narrow in the distance between each character which reduces the readability.” Later that year and in 2005, I worked on Zapf's feedback and on a new set of caps for all “cuts" further removing some decorative details. The resulting shapes turned out to be more functional and therefore more useful than the originals, without diminishing the overall concept behind the typeface. Extensive editing was done to all glyphs, maximizing and optimizing consistency and metrics, and expanding the character set (now supporting 98 languages). In January 2007 an article on my Hemingway was published on Graphicus 1034, at the time the leading Italian magazine for the graphic industry; the article included a specimen set in the updated version of the fonts.

The Hemingway font is not a bookface indeed; in a conservative view of text type, it is impossible to see this as anything except display. Still, it has something very experimental in it, that makes it perform at small body size as well. In the words of Jan Tschichold: “Both nature and technology teach us that ‘form’ is not independent, but grows out of function (purpose), out of materials used (organic or technical), and out of the ways in which they are used.”

The typeface was awarded and selected for the UK “Creative Review Type Annual 2011” within the Display category.

NIU Hemingway slides (pdf)

View Presentation